How to Unlock Creativity in Customer Service

customer service agent creativity
by
Dania McDermott

Anyone who’s worked in customer service knows high attrition rates are the norm.

But the conversations around turnover usually center on one thing: how hard it is to talk to people all day, to inherit negativity and complaints, to turn the other cheek.

What’s not discussed is the lack of professional development that accompanies these occupational hazards.

Without growth opportunities, customer service can seem like a slow path to nowhere.

To keep support teams agile, engaged, and dare we say loyal, customer service managers must stoke creativity in every agent.

When they do, they can leverage employee passion to drive growth, productivity, and innovation.

Here’s how:

Provide time to explore

Giving support reps room to experiment makes them better at their jobs.

agents riding bikes

Countless studies show that people who explore diverse concepts, topics, and experiences become more flexible and imaginative problem-solvers, even when those experiences seem unrelated to their daily work.

The primary reason is simple: New ideas result from the interconnection of old ones. The more we learn and experience, the more we can pull from when faced with new challenges.

Known as “broadening,” the pursuit of knowledge-rich experiences also staves off the cognitive entrenchment that impedes innovation. 

In short, it makes us more creative.

At work, driving creative engagement means giving your team the room to explore areas unrelated to their jobs—without feeling guilty.

How to do it

Freeing up work time for “non-essential” activities is a tall order for most, but it can be nearly impossible for support teams with high ticket volumes.

Once you have a handle on staffing and volume, you can create time in a few ways:

Leverage block scheduling (Beginner)

Like using a shared calendar to manage lunch breaks, support teams can make use of designated project “blocks” to ensure everyone has an opportunity to explore.

Given predefined hours that agents can “claim” to pursue their individual interests and ideas, hardworking reps stand a better chance at starting and completing new objectives.

Time away from the queue also means reps will be refreshed and better equipped to “think outside the box” when they do return to the frontlines. 

As a personal aside, the author of this post worked in support and produced her company’s first-ever how-to video thanks to block scheduling and the creative freedom it allowed.

Take a cue from known innovators (Advanced)

Renowned innovator 3M uses more than its recognizable name to attract and retain top talent.

The company responsible for the Post-It Note allows employees to devote 15 percent of their work hours to discretionary projects, provides funding opportunities for those projects, and permits project failure without risking anyone’s career.

Whether your organization is as large or profitable as 3M doesn’t matter—invest what you can afford and bright ideas are likely to follow.

Augment learning with classes and experiences

Increasing workplace creativity is a lot like building muscle mass: the greatest gains are the result of different exercises and techniques.

For support teams, this means providing agents with training and experience in areas that have little (or in some cases nothing) to do with client-facing tasks.

ping pong tablePixar runs its own university of free opt-in workshops and classes in everything from sculpture to improv comedy. Etsy provides classes on a wide range of topics like tap dancing or how to navigate a difficult conversation. Google offers on-site gyms, a diverse roster of guest speakers, and cooking classes where employees learn to prepare dishes like Pad Kee Mao.

These companies aren’t bribing their current and future employees into staying or joining. They’re inviting their people to thrive by engaging them with meaningful opportunities to learn and grow—and they’re trusting these investments will ultimately produce business benefits.

How to do it

According to research from ADP, three challenges prevent workers from gaining critical skills and knowledge:

  • An overwhelming amount of information makes it difficult to keep track of what’s useful (68 percent)
  • Lack of effective tools makes it difficult to find the most useful information (34 percent)
  • Frequent updates and changes make it difficult to reliably access current information (32 percent)

This puts the onus on managers to not only figure out which resources to serve, but also how best to serve them.

The easiest way to start is asking the team directly: What would you like to learn? You can also make educated guesses about what might be appealing or beneficial based on what you know about their individual interests.

That improv class could help reps become more adept at handling difficult conversations. A cooking class might unlock a previously murky understanding of your product. An online course on user experience could trigger a much-needed helpdesk redesign.

No matter how you decide to encourage creative skills on your team, investing in a mix of digital and in-person experiences will yield the best ROI. Look into workshops, bring teachers on-site, and investigate online learning platforms like Udemy (Aircall’s e-platform of choice) and Skillshare. Make sure to request and apply agent feedback between sessions.

Promote leadership opportunities

Almost half of our current job skills will become obsolete by 2022 based on predictions from World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs Report.

As automation grows in sophistication and adoption, the most important skills to nurture––now and in the future––are those that won’t go extinct.

One such skill is leadership, which more than 50 percent of Millennials want help to develop.two builders planning

This doesn’t mean giving everyone the leeway to do whatever they want. It means giving your people the autonomy to pursue projects of interest and—more crucially—to make important decisions about their domains.

How to do it

Start by connecting with agents—individually or in team meetings—to identify and agree on areas for improvement. Then find out who’s motivated to solve these issues and let them do their thing.

This might include:

  • Updating, producing, and centralizing internal help documentation
  • Improving the process around escalations or customer service strategy
  • Driving cross-team collaboration initiatives with marketing, sales, and product
  • Maintaining and systematizing help center updates
  • Building or refining support quality assurance protocols

When agents feel empowered to act on their own ideas, they’re more likely to apply their best effort, even if it means putting in extra hours.

To aid their decision-making, they’re also likely to draw inspiration from self-directed learning, making the path to leadership an exercise in creativity.

 In a survey of more than 1500 CEOs, IBM found that creative leaders are:

  • Comfortable with ambiguity and experiment to create new business models
  • Courageous and visionary enough to make decisions that alter the status quo
  • Likely to consider previously unheard-of ways to drastically change the enterprise for the better

If you can demonstrate these qualities to your team—and trust them to take the reins where appropriate—you can drive much-needed improvements while building their leadership skills in the process.

Careering in Customer Service

Nurture and encourage expertise

Decades of research suggest “expertise” is a necessary component of high-quality creative work. Without it, your team will spend the bulk of its time trying to figure things out instead of making things better.

customer service and product alignment

This is most apparent on support teams that encourage agents to be generalists. When they inevitably need expertise to serve a customer, turning to other departments for help can quickly become a habit.

This isn’t to suggest there’s anything wrong with relying on the product team for clarity around the way a feature works—or on sales to handle all communication during a trial. 

But if an agent hopes to innovate in a given area, they must become an expert in that area first.

How to do it

The first step to cultivating expertise is knowing each agent’s interests and aptitudes.

Some people on your team may be into nurturing customer relationships, while others may be adept at navigating and troubleshooting complex product issues. Some may have aspirations to write, code, or analyze data, while others may long to drive process improvement.

Whatever the case, play to their strengths. As HBR (and performance psychologist Anders Ericsson) notes, deliberate practice is the only way to develop expertise.

The three-step process to expertise includes:

  • Identifying the components of a skill
  • Offering targeted coaching in said skill
  • Encouraging reps to focus on weak areas

Customer service managers that encourage expertise are able to:

  • Drive employee engagement by putting reps to work on the things they already care about 
  • Carve out specialty areas that promote better customer experiences by arming agents with a “go-to” person on their own team
  • Create professional development paths that enable internal promotions, sometimes to other departments

Fostering creativity in customer service

Low engagement is the number one reason employees leave.

Whether it stems from outdated processes, inflexible routines, or wasted resources, the number of restless and disengaged employees in the workforce is growing, with Millennials leading the charge

In the war for talent, companies that earn the emotional commitment of employees invest in and prioritize creativity. As a result of their efforts, these organizations see measurable gains in quarterly returns, performance reviews, market share, and revenue growth.

Best of all, their employees view them as personally rewarding places to work—and that kind of news travels fast.

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